2017-08-01 / Features

Meeting sharks on their own wet turf

I have been interested in sharks for as long as I can remember. Growing up on the Florida panhandle coast, I developed an interest in all forms of marine life, including sharks.

I learned to SCUBA dive in 1975, just after the release of the first “Jaws” movie. The movie’s portrayal of sharks skewed my perspective, but I still looked forward to seeing my first shark while in the water with it.

I didn’t have to wait long. After my SCUBA certification dive, during the “surface interval” before our second dive, I was snorkeling with a large school of amberjack. We were anchored at the wreck of the Russian Freighter San Pablo, nine miles in the Gulf of Mexico off Pensacola. It was a calm, clear October day, and the underwater visibility was about 75 feet. As I swam back toward the boat, a school of baitfish passed below me, in the same direction I was swimming.

The school of amberjack passed below me, as well. It is hard to explain, but you can sense the difference in the behavior of the other marine life when a shark is present. Something told me to turn around, and there was my first up-close and personal meeting with a shark. It was one of the “requiem” shark family Carcharhinidae, so it could have been one of a dozen or so species common to our area. The shark was about six feet long, and it was swimming back and forth, just below the surface, about 25 feet away from me. As I turned and swam backwards toward the boat, the shark kept its distance. For the first minute or so, we swam together without undue excitement.

Then, on one of his turns, the shark swam directly toward me. At that instant, my cautious fascination vanished. The shark reduced our distance to about 15 feet, then returned to his back-and-forth swimming pattern. I had to take my eyes off the shark long enough to turn my head toward the boat to yell for help. When I looked back in the direction of the shark, he wasn’t there. I spun around looking in all directions, but couldn’t find him. When the dive-boat’s dingy pulled up beside me, I didn’t need any help getting in. On the next dive, I looked for the shark, but I never saw it.

In retrospect, I think I scared the shark away with my sudden movement as I turned and raised my head out of the water. For the next 20 years and more than 2,000 dives, my underwater shark sightings were uncommon and mostly without concern for safety. My typical shark encounter would consist of seeing a shark, then swimming toward it, trying to get picture, video or just a better look at it. Invariably, the shark would swim away. As my interest and participation in spearfishing grew, sharks were always in the back of my mind.

When I started night-diving and spearfishing at night, my thoughts about sharks increased, but not to the point of keeping me out of the water. During hundreds of night spearfishing dives, only once did I encounter a shark. Visibility was limited, so I only saw it once, but I have to admit that I waited for a few anxious minutes before ascending. Sharks are a natural part of marine ecosystems and undoubtedly played a role in my decision to become a marine biologist. As my dive log approaches 3,100 dives, I have observed significant changes in shark sighting frequency and behavior over the past decade. In spite of documented global harvest of millions of sharks each year, including from the Gulf of Mexico, I am seeing more sharks now than ever before.

And the sharks I am seeing appear less afraid of divers. Apart from lionfish removal, I rarely spearfish. For the past 10 years, most of my diving consists of artificial reef inspections and marine life documentation for work or underwater sightseeing with friends and family. Reports from other divers are consistent with my observations, and I’m also hearing reports about sharks taking speared fish. On a single dive, I have had up to four sharks swimming around me. The most common species I see is the “sandbar” shark, Carcharhinus plumbeus, typically 5-7 feet in length. So why are sharks becoming more common and less afraid of divers? I think the saltwater fishing regulations, which require the release of undersized and out-of-season fish, have taught sharks that the sound of boats above reefs means easier hunting.

Regulatory discards have the unintended consequence of changing the behavior of sharks and dolphins, which have reached nuisance status for local anglers and divers. Some spearfishers have released speared fish when sharks approached too close, further reinforcing the sharks’ behavior. Some sharks have apparently become “bullies” toward divers, with the probable intent to obtain food. Stingray City in Grand Cayman is a perfect example of association of sounds and food by a close relative of sharks. It didn’t take long for the stingrays in North Sound to learn the sounds of daily anchoring by fishing boats in the same location to clean their catch. After cleaning their catch, the fishermen threw the fish carcasses overboard.

Over time, the stingrays became accustomed to this daily “feeding.” The only surprise is the apparent lack of participation of sharks, other than nurse sharks. Shark feeding has become a popular form of underwater tourism in the Bahamas and elsewhere, although Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission prohibits the activity in state waters. Locally, most of the sharks encountered in the waters around Escambia County are generally harmless to humans. Notable exceptions include tiger and bull sharks. However, any shark is capable of inflicting injury if it is threatened or if it mistakes a person for prey.

One of the most common injuries occurs in limited visibility when a shark bumps into a swimmer and reacts with a quick bite. This bump-and-bite is usually followed by the shark’s departure when it realizes the human is not its typical prey. A more serious case of mistaken identity occurs when a shark conducts one or more deliberate bites with removal of tissue. Fortunately, these are extremely rare occurrences, and of these, fewer are fatal. Although I have only seen tiger sharks from a boat, I have seen several bull sharks while diving. Their distinctive dorsal fin, snout and robust body shape catch my attention and I closely watch for any signs of aggression.

It bears repeating that all nearly all sharks have teeth. Sharks are unpredictable, and notable shark experts have endured tragic injuries. I will calmly and immediately exit the water if I am threatened. When the Jaws movies came out, we thought isolated reports of great white shark sightings in the Gulf of Mexico were actually mako sharks. Makos are in the same “mackerel” shark family as great whites and have similar appearance. Recent fishery landing data, satellite tagging data and actual video footage have confirmed great whites in the Gulf of Mexico. Large mako sharks have been caught near local beaches in recent years. The world’s largest living fish is the whale shark, which can grow to 40 feet in length. Whale sharks feed on plankton and very small prey.

Their only documented injury to humans is scrapes or bruises to divers and snorkelers who swim too close to the shark. With greater understanding of sharks and their behavior, people can enjoy the same waters with sharks and other marine species. By avoiding locations and times when sharks are more likely to be present and/or feeding, we can greatly reduce the risk of dangerous encounter.

Limited visibility due to water turbidity and the period between late afternoon and early morning are situations and times of greatest risk from sharks. Large schools of fish may attract sharks and stimulate feeding behavior. Other risks include having bleeding or open wounds, splashing excessively, and wearing jewelry. Contrasting swimwear may also attract a shark’s attention. The only certain way of completely eliminating shark risk is to avoid marine and estuarine waters and any connected waterways.

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